LINKS: A Typical Day Unlike Any Other

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February 21, 2017

Walking by Mr. Glass’ classroom, you probably wouldn’t take notice of much at first glance. Kids at desks. Teacher asking questions.
If you were to slow down to observe more closely, you might be intrigued by the posters covering the walls. You would notice pictures of students smiling and laughing ... happy to be at Hudsonville High School. Words like “family” stand out and cue you in to the bond between the students in the photos. Staying in Mr. Glass’ classroom long enough, you’d hear a student’s voice from the podium at the front of the room:
“We’re different; yet the same.”
Mr. Glass asks one of a few questions of each student who takes a turn at the podium: What did you learn about yourself? How will this experience help you in the future? What have you learned about the students you’ve worked with?
The students’ responses to Mr. Glass’s questions are anything but typical:
“I wasn’t as good a listener or as patient as I thought I was. I’ve grown by listening, communicating ... which grew our relationship.”
“Communication. I had to think differently about how I approach things. I based it off of how I would go about it and how I learn best. I had to learn flexibility; to think on the spot; how to reword things.”
“Stand up for others no matter what. Someone is always watching you, and they learn from your example ... we take things for granted. We can change others’ days and their outlooks.”
“I realized the power of influence. There are not many opportunities that are as humbling.”
“It caused me to look past what I see and to dig deeper into who they really are ... what they can do. I want to remember to look past what I see on the outside, and I think I’ll be really surprised.”
“I thought I knew how to handle everyone. And I learned there’s not a generic way to do that.”
“This was a reality check. Business. Sales. That’s what I thought would be what I do. But to watch them grow and to make a difference. I think now, maybe, I want to be a teacher like you. It might be what I do.”
“I built a lot of empathy and how to understand people more. I want to go into healthcare. In talking with doctors and nurses, it can be hard to maintain empathy. We need to remember that people are people – not cases. And, I learned patience. To not get frustrated and to butt in and do it for him. The benefit is getting him to do it himself.”
“Some of them have tough backgrounds. They’ve been through so much, and they still show up and work hard. They’ve been an inspiration. I’m so grateful for what they’ve done.”
“I also had to adjust when I transferred here a couple of years ago. That experience made me want to be part of LINKS.”
These voices are void of judgment and full of humility and hope. They are voices of learners who experienced something bigger than themselves. They experienced LINKS:
The LINKS program at HHS, under the guidance of special education teacher Casey Glass, has grown and broadened its reach by pairing mentors with a diverse group of special education students. Mentors might be paired with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down syndrome or other learning challenges. No matter, the focus is on creating a culture of inclusivity and compassion.
The social worker at HHS, Jeff Tubergen, collaborates with Casey, LINKS participants and other staff members to support the development of his students’ strengths and help them achieve their social goals. He has noticed that the collaborative efforts help everyone involved. By supporting the mentors’ understanding of how to build relationships with others who may not think, act or look just as they do, the mentors are able to influence their LINKS partners and the rest of the students in the school by serving as models of how to be inclusive. The mentors learn how to seek understanding at a deeper level, how to love unconditionally and how to celebrate the small things.
One mentor was so excited and couldn’t wait to tell her family that her LINKS partner said, “Thank you,” when a peer had complimented her on a project. The mentor’s partner didn’t usually speak. “Thank you,” seemingly small to most, was something to celebrate. It was hope.
Jeff and Casey had countless stories of the impact the LINKS program has had on the culture of the school and the outlook of all involved. Casey, the West Michigan Officials Association’s 2016 Girl’s Basketball Coach of the Year, noted that several of his athletes have served as LINKS. It seems there is a connection between what is being learned in LINKS and what his student athletes value most. He shared that his team had declared a focus on family. They prioritized their time to take care of each other and build their bonds off the court, which translated into wins on the court. Casey is proud of his team, and there are pictures framed in his classroom to prove it. There was one picture that he showed me of the largest crowd he had ever seen in the HHS gym. Only this game was a Special Olympics basketball game.
The picture made me think of Brody. He’s my son Lance’s best bud who has Down syndrome and plays basketball for Special Olympics. Growing up with Brody, Lance has noticed at times that they are different; yet the same.  Lance has said, “Brody may have Down syndrome, but Down syndrome’s not gettin’ him down!” Just like in LINKS, Brody has taught Lance HOPE: Highly Optimistic Purposeful Energy.
When we live life with HOPE and a belief that every day is an opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of others, we understand what a typical day in Mr. Glass’ LINKS class is like.

Tracy Horodyski is Michigan’s Teacher of the Year for 2016-17, the 10th year Meemic has partnered with the Michigan Department of Education for the MTOY program. She’s a reading interventionist and instruction coach at Zinser Elementary in Grand Rapids and has more than 15 years of classroom experience.
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